Beer is an acquired taste. So is whiskey. So is coffee. So are kale, fancy cheese, dark chocolate, radishes, grape leaves, tongue, liver, catfish, and sturgeon. We weren’t born liking these things. So why do we consume them?
I have a funny story about drinking coffee: When I was a junior in college, my school’s geology program took a weeklong field trip to the Texas Hill Country. We gathered rock samples and trilobite fossils during the days, then dusted ourselves off and cooked food around the campfire at night. Our professor, Dr. Gary Johnson, was an ace with a rock hammer and smoked fragrant tobacco from a briar pipe. Each night after dinner Dr. Johnson would make coffee over the fire using a metal strainer and a dented tin mug. It seemed like a great hassle. I asked how long he’d been drinking coffee.
“Long goddamn time,” he said. Ever since he’d been First Lieutenant Johnson, stationed at Fort Belvoir just south of Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1966. That young man was awaiting orders that would assign him to an Army division along the DMZ in South Korea, but for the time being he was just an eager bachelor. One weekend he drove into the city for a blind date with a woman from the U.S. Geological Survey.
She was waiting on the steps of her apartment building when Johnson arrived. “What a smile,” he recalled. What charm. What smarts. They went for dinner and then to a movie. Back at her apartment she asked if he’d like to come in for a cup of coffee. Johnson didn’t drink coffee, never had. “But I knew what a cup of coffee meant,” he told us around the campfire. So he had a choice: either break curfew and follow her inside or slink back to the barracks to continue waiting on the war.
He struck a match and sucked the flame into his pipe, the tobacco softly crackling. “And I’ve been drinking coffee ever since.”
The next year I began drinking coffee as well. My story isn’t nearly so romantic: That winter I did a month of inpatient treatment for alcoholism, and afterward I attended nearly every 12-step meeting in the lower eastern corner of South Dakota. These meetings are mostly the same: the lengthy preamble, the string of personal introductions, the wicker basket passed around for donations, and the economy-brand coffee scooped from a metal canister and drained into styrofoam cups. It’s terrible, burnt and bitter, yet most everyone drinks it because it’s better than the alternative.
I’ve been drinking coffee ever since. I was twenty-two then. Now I’m almost forty and coming up on ten years sober. It doesn’t take a mathematician to recognize that my first attempt at sobriety didn’t stick. When I began drinking again, I made up for lost time. I wasn’t ready to be done with alcohol. You could say I’ve never lost the taste.
When people imagine Interior Alaska, where I currently live, they tend to think of extreme temperatures, but just as stunning are the varieties of light. In winter there’s the aurora borealis — sheets of aquamarine that shimmer against the dark sky like a toreador’s cape. In summer there’s the relentless glare of the midnight sun. Between those two are the seasons of twilight hues, dense and creamy like the flesh of stone fruits — peaches and plums, cherries and mangoes.
It’s the type of sky that, if rendered by a landscape painter, you might criticize as hackneyed or sentimental, but, seeing it in person, you can’t help but reach for your phone. I’ve never yet seen the Alaskan sky improved with a photo filter.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
My last drink was nearly ten years ago, back in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, at my friend Eric Sivertsen’s wedding. There’s no embarrassing story there. I didn’t fall down or break anything or drive when I shouldn’t have. But drinking had long since lost its glamour. Eric’s wedding was just the final indulgence. Afterward I was so exhausted that quitting felt easier than keeping on, and my years of sobriety gradually accumulated.
Still, I was graceless in the transition. My emotions could sometimes be very loud without alcohol to blunt them; other times I felt numb without a drink to stir me up. I had nightmares about losing my sobriety, about disappointing my family and terrorizing my friends. For the first few years I hardly went out after dark for fear of temptation. But it got easier. Things evened out. Ten years is no small passage of time. I’m talking about my entire thirties here. Of course I grew steadier and more confident.
Which brings me to Interior Alaska. Last winter I moved to Fairbanks, six hours north of Anchorage and just below the Arctic Circle. This time of year it’s dark, calm, dry, and cold. To the south the sun barely skims the horizon, and ice fog drifts like a specter beneath the fuzzy streetlamps. But then the days grow long, the snow shrinks away, and people emerge from their cabins to find another world entirely.
Now it’s May. The air is clear, the ground is soggy, and all around campus — I teach writing at the university — people want to be outside. They call this “breakup season,” because the ice cleaves and the rivers once again find their course. A similar claim could be made for the people.
Lately I’ve been out among the trees. I’ve been running on trails and gravel roads, driving aimlessly well into the evening while the sky is still perfectly bright. And though the spring world seems limitless and uncharted at this latitude, it’s hard not to feel alone. My family is still in South Dakota — my parents, my sister, my nephews. They probably couldn’t imagine me venturing into such a wilderness, far from pavement and power lines. I’ve likewise been struggling to imagine the geography of their lives.
Most of all I miss my sister, Kate. She’s two years older than I am, with an extra decade of sobriety to her credit. She works a program, chairs meetings, sponsors new arrivals, and structures her days by the 12-step regimen. She has a practice. I do not. By the time I finally quit drinking, I’d been to hundreds of meetings and was well versed in the rhetoric of recovery. I wanted something different and took on sobriety as a loner, as is my nature. I’ve never celebrated the anniversaries.
Ten years feels different though. Maybe it’s the round, two-digit number, or a wish to honor my sister and her sacrifices, but I’ve felt cravings. Not for alcohol — for connection. At most 12-step meetings, the chairperson distributes “chips,” little tokens or coins marking the duration of one’s sobriety. I’ve decided that next month I will go to a meeting and claim my ten-year chip.
Fairbanks is a good-sized city, with the university on one end and an Army base on the other. We are home to many “northernmost” claims: the northernmost Denny’s, the northernmost Starbucks. We’re even north of the town of North Pole, Alaska, a tourist trap fifteen miles down the Richardson Highway. Fairbanks is isolated, yes, but it’s no backwater. We have restaurants and museums, gun shows and craft fairs, a pioneer village and a summer-league baseball team.
I’ve been seeing a woman. Her name is Helene. She’s a hydrology engineer, and also a long-distance runner like me. Because Helene is a single mother, few of our dates have been at night. Instead we’ve met for coffee; we’ve run errands together; we’ve collaborated on a lengthy thread of text messages.
Earlier this week she and I planned a lunchtime walk at Creamer’s Field, a nearby nature preserve. I was futzing around in my office beforehand and arrived ten minutes late. When I pulled into the parking lot, Helene gave a little wave from beside a wooden fence. I apologized and said I’d lost track of time.
“You’re wearing a watch,” she said.
“I forgot to look at it.”
“Then I guess you’re wearing a chunky bracelet.”
With Helene was her dog, Pipit, a dark poodle mix inexplicably named for the dog that gets eaten by the shark in Jaws. Helene snapped her fingers, Pipit rose from her haunches, and we set out on a perimeter trail that curled past birch trees and black spruce and onto narrow boardwalks traversing bogs and shallow ponds. Helene and I talked about work. We talked about running shoes. We talked about permafrost and the havoc it plays on municipal water systems, which is her main concern at her job. And we talked about our families back in the Midwest — she is from Indiana — and how few people in Fairbanks actually mean Fairbanks when they say “home.” The day was bright and warm, like a school vacation. Songbirds glided through pillars of light. A muskrat observed us from the cavity of a fallen tree. Off leash, Pipit was obedient but curious, quick to traipse through the puddles and mud.
I don’t get how Helene manages her time so well. She has two sons, a dog, a house, and a full-time job. Plus she’s training for an ultramarathon and running fifty miles a week. By contrast, I don’t have much to do, yet my laundry piles up while my groceries run out. Where does all the time go? It seems I’m always standing over my kitchen sink, washing vegetables. I walk between rooms, looking for things, even though my apartment is tiny and I own very little. I zone out scrolling on my phone.
Patricia Hampl, a former teacher of mine, writes in her book The Art of the Wasted Day about the “battle between striving and serenity.” She uses the term serenity differently than we do at 12-step meetings. To her it means the satisfaction one feels in moments of solitude and repose. Americans, she writes, “address happiness individually, conceive of it as an intensely personal project, each of us busy about our own bliss.”
By that definition I’m as serene as the songbirds at Creamer’s Field. That is to say, my bliss is dependent upon me alone. I’ve never married or owned property. I don’t have children. I don’t have any debt. Happiness is not my “project,” as Hampl phrases it, but rather follows naturally from all this independence. When I lose track of time, it’s only because time in my life is so abundant.
Back in South Dakota my parents wake up around six every morning, put on coffee, then sit outside on the patio and gab until the sun comes up. The distance between us means they wake up around 3 AM Fairbanks time. The other night I just so happened to be awake at three in the morning, so I called them. They put me on speakerphone.
“I can’t sleep,” I said. “I think because of all the light.”
“What about blackout curtains?” asked my dad.
“Or a sleep mask?”
“It itches,” I said, “and it won’t stay on.”
He said their sky just then was dark like cranberry sauce, with a pinkish fringe emerging over the neighbor’s trees. The air was cool and still, and they’d had to shake dew from the cushions of the patio furniture.
They relayed the news from back home: One of the cats trained himself to open the patio door, and last week he got stuck halfway up the elm tree in the backyard. My mom keeps delaying retirement, though she’s past the age for it. Across town Kate has taken a second job, and my dad is pitching in with childcare. He has my older nephew mowing the lawn each week and the younger one organizing piles on his desktop.
“Piles of what?” I asked.
“Files,” my mom said. “Joe, you really should go to sleep. Drink a glass of warm milk.”
“Then I’ll wake up to use the bathroom.”
“Or take melatonin.”
“Everyone says take melatonin.”
“Oh, right,” said my mom. “Everyone agrees, so you need to do the opposite.”
Helene is unmoved by my sobriety. At first she probably assumed it was because of my running discipline, but the third or fourth time I refused a glass of wine, I had to explain myself.
She shrugged and said one of her relatives was an alcoholic.
I said one of mine was, too, and the conversation turned elsewhere.
Her indifference doesn’t bother me. I’d rather keep quiet about my problems — not because I’m avoiding the dirty work of self-inquiry. I’ve simply found that few people care about the problems of others, and those who do care mostly want to confirm that they’re better off than you.
None of my drinking stories would impress Helene anyway. They are cliché tales of arrested development, reckless abandon, or gross incompetence. Many involve my pissing myself or pissing in a place I wasn’t supposed to. Lots of times I wandered off alone, prompting friends to form a search party. I dropped bottles, lost my wallet, and burned cigarette holes in my clothes. I embarrassed myself at ballgames and concerts and sorority formals, sprinted through traffic on divided highways, tripped over my own pants in front of a U.S. senator. This behavior used to be funny to my friends and me. We used to call it “antics.” It seemed comic since we all emerged unscathed, but even a slight miscalculation could have turned some of those scenes tragic.
And, actually, is everyone unscathed? Though I never physically hurt anyone — no fights or car accidents or broken bones — that’s not to say I didn’t cause emotional pain. People worried about me, and I ignored, defied, or manipulated them, which is a form of abusing them. I’d still rather not see some friends and old acquaintances. Can I redeem myself? The program would have me go on a nationwide tour to make amends.
Helene doesn’t need to hear those stories, and I don’t need to tell them. Even if I did, I would twist their meaning by tacking on morals or spinning my failures into follies, misguided but ultimately harmless. How come? To avoid uncomfortable truths, I suppose, and to make some attempt at self-forgiveness. Mostly because it’s easier than admitting to someone: I hurt you. I disappointed you.
“I’ll get you another Diet Coke,” Helene said while making dinner at her house.
“No, thank you,” I said.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’ve had two already, and I’ll be feeling it in the morning.”
“And this is what passes for a drinking problem?” she said, and we laughed.
Now I’m second-guessing my plan to attend a meeting. What good is a sobriety chip? It’s just a trinket. I’m not going to display it on a shelf or carry it in my pocket. A chip is much less functional than, say, a key-chain penlight or a tube of lip balm.
Plus I don’t want to go to meetings. I hate all meetings, 12-step or otherwise. Meetings are the bacterial culture of bureaucracy. They produce only doodles, grocery lists, and indiscreet glances at one’s phone. I never speak in meetings because I don’t want to prolong the agony. If you want your ideas derided and your inspiration stomped, then call a meeting.
I’m talking about work meetings, of course, but 12-step meetings are detestable in their own way. Bumper-sticker slogans get passed off as wisdom and repeated ad nauseam. The big blue recovery book reads like a pastiche of pseudo-Gothic scare literature. And the proselytizing! I can accept the Higher Power stuff, which is purposely vague, but the insistence on ending each meeting by holding hands and reciting the Lord’s Prayer is completely at odds with the program’s secular mission.
I’m being cynical here. I should stop.
You know what bugs me most about meetings? The repetition: same script, same affirmations, same bathwater coffee. What’s more, if you’re doing meetings “right,” you keep returning and identifying yourself as an alcoholic — which, admittedly, will never not be true, but in doing so you keep repeating your story, forever rehashing its lows. Here we are, trying to evolve as people, and our boots are frozen in the muck of redundancy.
But that’s enough about meetings.
Sometimes I cry at meetings, and it’s hard to explain why. I think it’s because the people there are so candid and vulnerable. The newcomers, especially, fumble and repeat themselves and speak into their chests. They want their experience to make sense, but it won’t, not yet. It’s all confusion, no narrative. And the old guard, without fail, are wry and generous and perversely joyful. In no other setting is gallows humor so celebrated. These are people who have lived in darkness, lying flat under rocks and peering through sewer grates, and they are grateful for the light.
The people at meetings insist they are a family — a dysfunctional one, but a family nonetheless. They ask how you’re doing, and if you say poorly, they offer genuine solace. If you say well, they warm themselves happily in your glow. They invite you places — diners, banquets, bowling alleys — because they, too, have been alone. They, too, have suffered, struggled, and endured. Separate the people from the dogma, and you won’t find a crowd more attuned to its own hurts and flaws and limitations, and to the hope that one day soon they might shed their compulsions, stand tall, and rise above.
Really, that’s enough about meetings.
I finally gave in and took three milligrams of melatonin. And it worked, boy howdy. I was reading a true-crime book called In Cold Storage, about a double murder in Red Willow County, Nebraska: “Swinging an ax with enough force to cut a head from a torso when a body is lying on a concrete floor runs a substantial risk of a dangerous ricochet as the ax blade bounces off the concrete.” What? Eyes glazed over, I stumbled to the refrigerator and spilled a cup’s worth of orange juice down my shirt.
Nine hours later I woke up groggy and stiff in the joints. The next night I took melatonin again and slept another nine hours. Then eight hours, seven and a half, seven. Already the melatonin is losing its efficacy. I don’t like pills, and this is why. I’d rather quit now than test my response to six milligrams.
How does one still an unquiet mind? I’ve bought white-noise machines, listened to nasally NPR podcasts, paged through dusty Victorian novels in my living-room chair. These are only temporary fixes. Another option is to lace up and go for a run on the silent streets at two in the morning, when it’s twilight and for once I don’t need sunglasses.
The other night I saw a fox prancing down the yellow center line of University Avenue. For a good quarter mile I stayed within shouting range of it. Then a Subaru appeared, and the fox veered off smartly into the trees. Later I turned onto a residential block and saw a woman with a blowtorch cutting bolts from a woodstove in her yard. Further on a man and his son were stripping shingles off the roof of their two-story home; the son wasn’t wearing a shirt, as though he might be working on his tan.
What time was it? It didn’t matter. It was the present moment, and I was alive in it, breathing easy and gliding over the smooth concrete. A few time zones away my parents were rolling out of bed, the cat was pawing at the patio door, and my sister was fighting off dreams of her second job. Their days were just beginning, their hopes and hardships once again taking form, and in a short time we would all be sharing the same bright sun.
I must confess to a minor slipup with alcohol.
This past weekend Helene and I got tickets to a local theater show, and beforehand we met downtown at a trendy boutique bar where “mixologists” serve specialty cocktails from a converted Airstream trailer. I got a tonic water, Helene ordered a fruity tequila drink, and we sat at a small circular table.
How is Pipit, how is work, how are the boys? I’ve been running; yes, I tried the melatonin. Soon our conversation stalled, because she doesn’t ask much about me, and I offer little unprompted. At that moment I plucked a lime from the rim of my glass and spritzed it into my tonic water. Seeing this, Helene quickly fished the lime from her own glass and dropped it into mine.
Why would she do that? It was a small act of generosity: she must have pitied me for ordering a bland tonic water. But I didn’t want her lime. In fact, its presence in my glass caused my chest to tighten and my ears to flush. The problem was that her lime had been in contact with the diluted tequila in her glass.
This means nothing to most people, but I’m not most people. I worry I might smell the cap from a bottle of whiskey and within a week be sleeping on a stranger’s lawn. I don’t even eat beer-cheese soup. I will honestly flinch at a bottle of Jack Daniel’s barbecue sauce. No joke. I quit taking Communion at my parents’ church because I didn’t trust the assistant pastor to know which tiny glasses held the grape juice and which held the wine.
I’m not crazy: I knew the molecules of alcohol from Helene’s tequila drink now made up only a fraction of a decimal of a percentage point of my tonic water. But for the last ten years I’ve trusted that a single eyedrop of alcohol is too much for me. Would my body even know? My brain would, and I’m certain it would fill in the sensation my body might fail to register.
Helene and I toasted one another, and I drank my tonic water. No scene. I didn’t feel any different, and we enjoyed the theater show just fine. Nonetheless, later at home I chugged a half gallon of water to rinse out my system. When I finally slept, I woke three times in the night to use the bathroom. But that’s progress. In a former life I would have pissed the bed and slept in it.
And then, right on cue, the alcohol nightmares were back: I was in the basement at my fraternity house, picking through half-smoked cigarette stubs. I was burning plastic at a bonfire by the lake. I was spilling orange juice on myself, even in dreams.
We all need to accept that the world at large is indifferent to our existence. Most of our decisions matter only to us. I could drink tonight, and no one would know. I could drive ten minutes in any direction and buy beer or wine or liquor from ten different places. It’s not like some bartender would pat me down in search of a sobriety chip. And if I drank tonight, I could lie about it. I could lie to my family. For a while I could even lie to myself.
I worry about being alone: no one to call me to bed or call me on my bullshit. I don’t want to be alone forever. My dad would say you can’t rush these things, but my mom would tell me to get a dog — preferably a Labrador — and learn what it means to care for someone other than myself. My life is simple — that’s how I like it — yet its simplicity leaves me with so little to share. If I died tomorrow, my estate could be settled in a single afternoon, and my hypothetical sobriety chip would be just another item my parents and sister would need to sort through and eventually throw out.
And now for my next mistake.
The other day I messaged my friend Eric Sivertsen about using his name in this essay. He knows that his wedding day was the occasion of my final drink. I get the impression he doesn’t like being reminded of this, as though it might implicate him or turn his special day into a footnote. He might be onto something. Alcoholics are a narcissistic lot: we use people, treat them like actors in our own personal narratives. You don’t fix that sort of self-absorption overnight. You apparently don’t fix it in ten years either.
Don’t you mean eleven years? Eric wrote.
No, ten years.
I’ve been married eleven years this Friday.
I put down my phone and went outside. The sky was blue and brilliant, and I planned to run for an hour that day on the university trails. I told myself Eric was confused. I knew better than he did how long I’d been sober. I slid on my sunglasses and began walking down to the road. But then I turned around and went back inside. I scribbled out a timetable and counted the years.
There were eleven of them.
Of course Eric was right. He’s a dutiful husband, a doting father, a loyal friend, a business owner, a community advocate. Meanwhile I’ve created a notes file for this essay labeled “Piss Memories.” Eric also said Friday, which would make his wedding anniversary June 7. I’d had it in my mind that the date was June 6.
You must mean Thursday, I wrote to him.
Friday, he wrote back.
OK. Roger that. Eleven years sober next Friday.
As I rewrote my timetable, a new quandary arose: Wouldn’t my sobriety date be June 8, since I’d surely kept drinking past midnight at Eric’s reception? Or maybe June 9, my first full day without alcohol? I wondered how my sister would resolve this matter. I could have messaged her, but I decided not to. Who cares.
Let’s catch up next time I’m in Sioux Falls, I told Eric.
Always here, he replied, quite graciously.
Later I realized something else: I’m thirty-eight. I’d thought I was thirty-nine.
Who knows when that confusion began. Probably I was feeling older, and I sensed the creeping milestone of forty approaching. That night, when I was running, a faint echo reached me from my undergrad years, the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno: “Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray / from the straight road and woke to find myself / alone in a dark wood.”
Middle age is probably a state of mind. You can’t calculate it, because the arithmetic of your experience is unique to you alone. But there are markers. In middle age you dismiss the impetuousness of youth and turn your gaze to self-preservation. You think in terms of investments, status quo, certainty. You no longer view death as a wild rumor but as a matter of course.
So I’m middle-aged now. No complaints. If I’ve stopped heeding chronology, it’s only because chronology no longer defines me. How’s that for being alive in the present moment?
In the end I skipped the meeting and never bothered claiming my eleven-year chip. On my anniversary night — which I’m saying is June 7 — I went alone to see the final Avengers movie, which is three hours long and therefore kept me sober for another three hours. Not that I’m counting.
Afterward I called my sister. She didn’t answer and was probably sleeping. I had nothing important to say anyhow: I’m good these days. It’s gotten so much easier. You keep at it, yourself. Thank you for going first.
And because this was Alaska in June, I had all the daylight I wanted. I drove around eating sunflower seeds and listening to jazz on the all-night radio station. Eventually I landed north of town at Ski Boot Hill, another wooded area where Helene and I once walked her dog. Which reminds me: things didn’t work out between us. She saw me as dull, overly cautious, and stubborn to boot. Guilty as charged.
If I’d had my shorts and trail shoes, I might have set out to run six miles, but it was fine to walk. I was hoping to see a moose or a fox or a snowshoe hare, but I didn’t, and this, too, was fine. I was alone, which was also fine. The main path at Ski Boot Hill is flat and wide, paved with crushed gray rock. Smaller trails branched off like tributaries of a river. The sky through the trees was gauzy and bright.
Soon I came to a sign, a wooden post that said, SECRET TRAIL. Some secret. And after that was another sign, AFTER HOURS TRAIL, which I followed uphill until I came to a ridge where the trees thinned out to reveal what I call the pastel moment: a quality of light characterized by sherbet hues, soft and delicate and low on the horizon. It was after midnight, and the sun glinted off the solar panels of a cabin down below.
I’ll probably be sober until I die. I can’t imagine drinking again. If I do, it will be some small error of vigilance, like picking up the wrong glass at a work social, and it won’t ruin me. I can recover from that. And it won’t happen anyway. I won’t drink again. I won’t relapse. I’m paying attention now. Life is too wonderful not to. It’s glorious every day.
The light would be there until morning, but eventually I had to turn back and go home. I navigated the downhill with ease and certainty, and within minutes I was back on the main path. I passed the sign for the Secret Trail, but I didn’t need a sign to confirm I was going the right way. It was meant to keep me from getting lost, but I wasn’t lost.